Do Your Supplements Contain What The Label Says, Something More or Something Less?

If you’re buying supplements from places like GNC, Walmart, Walgreens etc, there’s a very good chance that you’re paying for junk powder and/or potentially harmful contaminants. At least that’s what the New York attorney general Eric Schneiderman has to say.
According to an article published today in The Guardian online detailing a recent study spearheaded by Mr. Schneiderman, and the subsequent report: “Overall, just 21% of the test results from store brand herbal supplements verified DNA from the plants listed on the labels. The retailer with the poorest showing was Walmart. Only 4% of the Walmart products tested showed DNA from the plants listed on the labels”.

So there’s a 79% chance (on average), according to the study, that what’s in your vitamin supplement bottles is junk powder.

how safe are your supplementsWhat do I mean by ‘junk powder’? Most commonly it’s going to be a non-nutritive filler or excipient like magnesium stearate, rice powder, carob powder or something else costing around $1 per kilo for the supplement manufacturer to procure. But it may not always be a benign non-nutritive powder, it could be something potentially fatal to a person with food allergies, as I’ll explain below.
On the one hand I feel somewhat vindicated since I’ve been warning people of this practice via articles on this website for over a decade. On the other hand, as someone who makes my living from the sale of natural health products, I can’t help but be upset by the damage this revelation is going to do to our industry.

Here’s the scenario as it commonly plays out – do you recognize yourself in this?

Shopper hears about a natural product from a news story, friend or colleague. Shopper goes online to research the natural product. Shopper finds a website selling the product for $24.95 Shopper is sure this same product can be found at Walmart for less. Shopper purchases said product from Walmart for $13.95, a saving of $11 per month.

The problem is this: it’s likely that had the shopper purchased the product from a reputable online company, perhaps a smaller bespoke supplement manufacturer with a long track record of supplying quality products, then the shopper may have received a real and tangible benefit from the product purchased. But buying something that contains primarily a non-nutritive powder is sure to yield zero tangible benefits beyond the short-term placebo effect.

So the shopper hasn’t saved $11, the shopper has wasted $13.95 on their purchase.

I suppose I should stop there. However, you need to know more about what it is that you might be putting into your body when you buy one of these store-brand supplements from a large retailer. In the same article quoted above, it is revealed that many of these supplements contain potentially harmful contaminants. “Contaminants identified include rice, beans, pine, citrus, asparagus, primrose, wheat, houseplant and wild carrot. In many cases, unlisted contaminants were the only plant material found in the product samples”.

You need to think about that last sentence. Let’s say you’ve bought a bottle of St. John’s Wort, for example. What the study has revealed is that not only may your product contain zero St. John’s Wort, but it may be made entirely from materials listed as contaminants.

So what if you have a certain type of nut allergy, one that could kill you.

And what if you decide to add St. John’s Wort to your diet – you examine the label to ensure it contains nothing of harm and that there isn’t the typical warning ‘this product has been processed in a food plant where nuts, wheat and soy are processed’ as is found on certain food products; and you buy it. What’s going to happen if the product contains one or more of the listed contaminants, including nut products?

vitamin supplement guidelinesAnother important aspect in all of this is the role of Contract Manufacturers.

Many of the larger companies use CM’s who supply products under different labels to a broad range of companies. So it’s not just a case of some no-name brand products flying under the radar, it can and does include many of the bigger brand names that you see in the chain store “Health’ section.

I mentioned earlier that I’ve been writing about these issues on my website for over a decade, let me give you an example of how I knew about these issues long before this recent report.

One of the supplements that I offer my customers is a premium grade royal jelly product. I procure the raw material in fairly large quantities from a reputable supplier. The ingredient is tested for contaminants, purity etc before it is sold to me along with a copy of the test results and product analysis.
It is then tested prior to processing (encapsulation and/or blending) and retested after processing. One of the tests is for active ingredient. If the powder has been cut down with a non-nutritive filler, as is common in the industry, it will be rejected.

Now there’s a price to pay for working with quality raw ingredients. In the case of premium grade 6% 10HDA royal jelly powder, the lowest price you’ll find on the market for bulk manufacturers is around $80 per kilo. A kilo is 1000 grams and will yield 1000 x 1000mg capsules, or 10 bottles of 100 count capsules. This is a typical product sold by many royal jelly suppliers. So before the cost of the bottle, the label, other packaging, manufacturing overhead, distribution costs and profit margins, there’s a baseline material cost for the ingredients of $8 per bottle. So how is it possible for a large chain store to sell this product for $4.99? They must have purchased the product for around $2.00 per bottle, perhaps less. That means whomever is selling the product is either losing around $10 on every sale, or they’re not putting royal jelly powder in the capsules.

Now you might argue about the economies of scale and that mass production of supplements reduces the material costs, and it does. But the price of $60 per kilo is based on high volume manufacture. At best, you might save 10% if you upped production to fulfill a Walmart order.

You can draw a few different conclusions from this.

I would urge you not to conclude that vitamin supplements are a waste of money, based on the nefarious practices of certain high-volume manufacturers, and on the blind-eye turned by the large corporations who want to monopolize the market and care only about the bottom line.
There are manufacturers around who pride themselves in only supplying quality products. The Natural Shopper is one such manufacturer, there are many others too.

Unfortunately, too few companies disclose their manufacturing processes and procedures openly, in the way that we do. So it isn’t easy for the consumer to form an opinion and make a sensible judgement on the quality of the product.

Glitzy packaging and fancy labels tend to blunt our senses to the reality of what’s inside the bottle.

If you shop online, one strategy you can adopt is to ask the supplier for a Certificate of Analysis specific to the product you intend to purchase. There shouldn’t be any reason not to supply this to a consumer, so simply ask and see what the reaction is.

A C of A will list the various tests conducted on the raw materials, including tests for E. coli, yeast and mold, Coliforms, Enterobacteriacae, and it will list the ‘other ingredients’. Ninety percent or more of suppliers will not have access to the manufacturing C of A. In the case of imported products, a C of A may not exist for any stage of the process.

I don’t envy you the task of determining which companies and reputable and which are not.

Meanwhile, I’ve prepared links to a few articles I’ve published over the years which talk about the procedures we adopt with our own manufacturing and discuss in more detail some of the finer points of raw material procurement and the subsequent manufacturing steps. These articles include information on pasteurization of liquid supplements, irradiation and other processes used by certain manufacturers which prove detrimental to the efficacy of the finished product.

Chinese Bee Pollen Product Recall (items contained in the product banned in the USA and not revealed on product label)

How is Royal Jelly Made

Understanding Bee Products and Other Vitamin Supplements.

Manufacturing Process for Beehive Products Explained

Some Truths about Royal Jelly and its Suppliers

Lyophilization Process Explained

Bee Products, vitamins and avoiding pasteurization

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